Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: Game Change

There are usually a few books that come out after each US Presidential election, but 2008 really seems to have led to a whole industry of writing. The first, and in my opinion best, overview of the campaign was Dennis W. Johnson's Campaigning for President; a book that takes an overview of the key innovations and explains why Obama won. As an edited collection it is able to cover a lot of ground with contributions from a range of academics - to understand what the campaign was about this is the one to buy. But for those who wish to get inside the campaign Game Change is something quite special. Subtitled 'Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime', this tells the insider story of relations between those contesting the presidency, between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates and details the biography of the campaign. Authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin are journalists and the project seems to have been approached from the perspective of an investigative journalist. Interviews have been conducted with a range of front line and back room operatives central to the campaign and the picture painted is one of both strategic thinking and deployment of resources as well as pragmatic seat of the pants flying that at times verged on panic. Wonderful stuff!

So what do we learn from this? The story of the bitter rivalry that blew up between the Clintons (Hillary and Bill) and Obama is striking. When the visible aspects of this were only the negative advertisements, to get a sense of the personal side to the contest is fascinating. In particularly Hillary Clinton's blinkered disbelief that the 'upstart' would not only take her on but force her to accept defeat. The chaotic organisation, or at times disorganisation and disfunctionalism within Clinton's team is also striking; this contrasts with Obama's slick operation that, although not without its problems, kept on top of strategy and perhaps this led to the emphatic victory in the race. Biden was a temporary spanner in the works, but soon got his game together and he is a marginal figure in the story largely. The John Edwards story is a further sideline but nonetheless an amusing aside, as he stumbles along badgered by his wife and dogged by rumours of an affair and subsequent love child it is clear why he never made any impact and never got a position in the Obama administration.

The McCain story is shorter and details the thinking within the campaign as they drift from frontrunner to being dead in the water to the emergent victor (of the nomination) in a matter of months. Again the disfunctionalism in his team is striking, but the real story is Sarah Palin. Her introduction, rise to stardom and then public and private meltdown, with hints of her verging on psychological collapse, is a fascinating and somewhat tragic story. The decision to include her in the campaign was ill-planned, and without full checks on her ability or background. While she showed herself to be an initial competent performer this did not withstand interrogation. Her brand crashed and burned very quickly, those advising her were probably as much to blame as McCain for choosing her and Palin herself.

The focus stays on Obama and the Clintons a lot, perhaps as that was where the real story of the 2008 campaign was. There is little said of the online machine Obama's team built; beyond this being a rich source of campaign finances. Also there is much about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright issue, yet little about some of the other events of the campaign - Joe the Plumber does not feature for example despite his name being constantly referenced by McCain in the third and final debate. In fact the latter stages of the fight seem to be a footnote when compared to the detail on the process of winning the nominations, a time when Obama and Clinton where the big game in town. However, despite some detail some readers may expect to feature being absent, it is a fascinating read - an series of in-depth insider accounts of a campaign written in an accessible style and at times reading like a political thriller. Great fun, but also a great insight into the world of the political strategist


Tom Watson said...

I enjoyed 'Game Change' too. It was a rather breathless read, with a lopsided focus on the Clinton/Obama battle that left the the Republicans and the subsequent presidential run-off as side-shows. What was notable in this account is that little (or no) credit is given to the impact of the social media battle, which others say was fundamentally important for Obama, and also the torrent of old money that poured in behind him. Ironically, he became the Establishment candidate, according to this account.

Apart from the Edwards fiasco (revenge of hubris!) and the Palin meltdown, 'Game Change' also showed how shallow the Obama campaign's policy work was and how it depended on his presentation. When Joe Biden was made VP candidate, he found the policy cupboard was bare. What Joe said is unprintable (here).

Finally, for all those who think that spin doctors are slick, socially-manipulative characters, read this book for Mark Penn, the Clinton's policy-meister and researcher-in-chief. He had a special ability to alienate anyone and everyone he dealt with. And to think he was the boss of Burson Marsteller before going back to the Clintons. There's a movie character to be made from him.

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